Charles Dickens lived in the perfect time to be Charles Dickens. To do research for his novels, which almost always focused on disparities of class and money, all he had to do was walk through his city. Victorian London was remarkable for its dramatic peaks and valleys of economic disparity—some of the richest people in the world lived just a few blocks from the poorest. And Dickens was known for being a flaneur; he clocked around 20 miles a day, walking from Tavistock House to the poorest parts of the city and back, taking mental notes all along the way.
Today, Dickens would resemble someone like James Scudamore. Scudamore is a London novelist who was raised all around the world—his childhood was spent in Brazil and Japan, among other places—and whose firsthand observations of massive differences in class reflect the global inequities that Dickens found in his own town. His latest novel, Heliopolis, is an update of Great Expectations (in case you have any doubts, Scudamore self-indulgently inserts "at least three copies of Great Expectations" into a wealthy man's thoughtlessly assembled library in the book), and it serves as a modern version of one of Dickens's excursions, carrying the reader from comfort to squalor and back again.
The backdrop has changed from Dickensian London to a financially fractured São Paulo and centers on Ludo, the son of a poor maid. The woman's wealthy employer, Zé Fischer Carnicelli, adopts Ludo and eventually gives him a job in a marketing company that is a minor stitch in the unthinkably huge quilt of his global empire. Here's his introduction, on the second page of Heliopolis:
[Carnicelli] hasn't been down to street level in the city for over fifteen years. He lives in a gated community of 30,000 inhabitants, way out of town, and is flown from there to his downtown office every morning in a helicopter that has the word Predator painted graffiti-style over its nose, along with gnashing teeth and evil yellow eyes... during the day, he might hop to another high-rise to meet someone for lunch, or to attend an afternoon meeting, but he never touches the pavement.
Money has the power to transform men into gods, or superheroes. It gives them the power of flight, and it also allows them to render the poor invisible. Ludo vividly remembers the poverty he comes from: "Whole cities of squatters, with strong fingers, and dirt under their nails from clinging on—the fingers of second-thought suicides who try to claw their way back up the cliff." And the survivor's guilt he feels at being airlifted out of the squalor manifests as a bad drinking problem and an uncontrollable crush on his (married) adopted sister.
Ludo's self-loathing narration brings a sardonic tinge to his reportage. Here is his description of Angel Park, the gated community ("Life with the sting removed") where Carnicelli lives: "When your overindulged son wraps your Porsche around a lamppost, all he has to contend with is a security force whose paymaster is you, his parents, so he can never really get into trouble." He backhandedly praises the smell of Angel Park, away from the "chemical fumes of the city." The streets in the gated community have the scent of "cut grass and cinnamon candy, and the warm smell of freshly bathed Caucasian babies."
Heliopolis calls back to Dickens in all the right places—the soap-operatic coincidences and wildly stretchy plot points serve to entertain, not try the patience of, the reader. But Scudamore knows where to part ways with Dickens, too. He allows his narrative to develop its own conscience about class and race, and to come to different conclusions than Dickens did. (Heliopolis does suffer some unfortunate exclusions: While Ludo is a finely wrought character, many of Dickens's best Great Expectations characters do not find an equivalent. There are no Mollys in Heliopolis, no Herbert Pockets or Wemmicks, and, perhaps most tragically, nobody as memorable as Miss Havisham.)
It's the moral differences with Dickens that make Heliopolis something of note. While Dickens suggested that money could corrupt a heart, he still harbored a naive belief—being a wealthy man of letters himself—in the ability of the pure to withstand that corruption. Scudamore sees the corruption of wealth as something deeper, more complex: a black root that digs down to the heart of societies and makes them sick. It's in the final pages of the book, when Heliopolis explodes into class warfare, where he makes his stand against Dickens. Things have changed, Scudamore insists, since the days of Dickens's walks. And many of those changes are for the worse.